What Covid-19 Teaches Us About Health
Science can only take us so far.
Posted February 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Since it was initially detected in Wuhan City, Hubei, China, a novel coronavirus, recently named Covid-19, has become a global public health challenge. Over 80,000 cases have been identified around the world, including about 3,000 deaths.
Most of us have in our minds a model of how to respond to large-scale health threats like Covid-19. We think of science. We think of quarantines and sanitary masks, and the race to develop a vaccine. These are important steps in addressing Covid-19, as are standard flu-season best practices of handwashing, covering one’s mouth when one sneezes or coughs, and contacting a health care professional in the event of sickness.
But there is another element to addressing Covid-19, one we perhaps do not think much about: love. To be clear: I do not mean love in a sentimental sense. I am not suggesting we can simply love each other and the disease will go away. Covid-19 is a serious, sometimes deadly disease, and will not be wished away by warm feelings. I mean love as an organizing principle for our collective response to disease and for building a healthier world, one where threats like Covid-19 no longer occur.
Let me explain.
Diseases threaten us in many ways, and not just at the level of physical health. They also threaten mental health—of individuals and of whole societies—by spreading the contagion of fear, suspicion, and hate. We have begun to see this with Covid-19.
The spread of the disease has been accompanied, in some areas, by bigotry, xenophobia, and a desire to build walls. Because Covid-19 was first detected in China, anti-Chinese sentiment has begun to shape the discourse about the disease. Because Covid-19 is communicable, countries have started to limit travel, and individuals have begun to fear the consequences of their daily interactions with one another.
This is, to some extent, practical when tackling health challenges of this nature. Some social isolation, both large- and small-scale, is necessary for keeping populations safe. Yet this can easily tip beyond what is necessary into division motivated more by fear and alarm than sensible precaution. Such overreaction is one of the worst steps we can take, at a time when health depends on our ability to work together, as a global community, to stop the spread of disease.
By amplifying divisiveness and hate, Covid-19 threatens the social fabric that is the basis for effective public health response. One could be forgiven for thinking the disease is somehow doing this on purpose, to keep itself alive and thriving. Yet that would be giving it too much credit. A virus cannot create conditions of hate and distrust. It can only exploit what is already present.
And, the fact is, our world has taken a turn towards divisiveness in recent years. From nationalist rhetoric targeting immigrants and touting walls, to racial tensions, to economic inequality, to the marginalization of LGBT individuals, to the stigmatization of populations living with chronic health conditions like obesity and HIV, the divides that threaten us have long been present. They amount to a belief that, if we could just retreat to our own little corners of the world and keep certain people out, we could have a perfect society.
Diseases like Covid-19 show just how illusory this belief is. This disease is a challenge not for any one country, or political party, or identity group, but for the whole world—a world that is more connected than ever, as the pace of the disease’s spread has shown. Overcoming the Covid-19 threat means embracing this interconnectedness, rather than fighting it.
That is where love comes in. Love is the antidote to hate. Where hate drives us apart and prevents us from seeing situations clearly, love generates coherence.
Through love, we are able to look with compassion on others and see how we are linked, how the health of one depends on the health of all. Hate says, “It is us versus them.” Love says, “We are all in this together.”
Love inspires us to put the needs of others first and regard our collective health as a public good, sustained by our common effort. When we love, it does not matter what the nature of a health challenge happens to be. If we act with compassion, mindful of our shared humanity, always asking, “What can we do to help us?” rather than, “What can I do to help myself?” we will find ourselves equal to any challenge, whether it is dealing with Covid-19, addressing climate change, or ending stigma and marginalization everywhere—all of which would make the world a healthier place.
This emphasis on love may sound obvious, trite even, but fundamental truths often do, and it is to fundamentals we must return if we are to navigate this century’s early adolescence, with all its perils and confusion. Science and technology can take us far and are necessary for showing us how to act during health challenges, but they can do little in the context of a fractured society that has fallen under the spell of hate.
Love is needed not just to address the threat of Covid-19, but to lay the foundation for a world where a disease like this cannot find its footing. It motivates us to engage with politics to end policies that marginalize and exclude, and replace them with policies that shape a more just, inclusive society.
It helps us come together to address poverty, invest in quality public education, embrace more health-conscious urban design, and work cooperatively as an international community to solve problems, paving the way for a healthier future. Such steps are central to creating a world where disease is less likely to emerge, and easier to stop when it does.
For all these reasons, we need to make sure that when we talk about health—whether in the context of addressing threats like Covid-19, reducing obesity, promoting vaccine use, or any other public health action—we need to talk about love.
To help inform this conversation, on Monday, March 2, I will give a TEDMED talk expanding on the themes of love and hate. Covid-19 is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to rethink our approach to health, in the hope of creating a world where love, and health, can flourish.